Book Review: Taran Wanderer

Book Review: Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

With the Black Cauldron destroyed, Death-Lord Arawn has retreated to his own lands for the time being, and no other major threats beset the realm of Prydain.  Long peaceful days at Caer Dallben have given Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper time to think.  Taran has realized a number of things, including that he wants to be together with Eilonwy for the rest of their lives…and that he has no idea who he is.

Taran Wanderer

That’s both in the metaphorical and literal sense.  Taran has no idea who his parents were, or if he has living kin.  And his life at Caer Dallben has been more about caring for the oracular swine Hen Wen than discovering his own way of life.  What if he is of noble birth?  What if he is truly a peasant?  Can he be together with a princess if his birthright is unknown?

Dallben the enchanter is as usual not a great deal of help; he either cannot or will not tell Taran the details of the boy’s heritage.  So it is that Taran sets out with his faithful companion Gurgi to the Marshes of Morva.  There, Taran consults the three dangerous sister enchantresses, but learns he cannot pay them a price high enough to learn his own secret.  They do, however, mention that the Mirror of Llunet might give him a glimpse of his true self.

Lake Llunet, where the Mirror was last seen, is clear at the other end of the country, and the rest of the story is about Taran’s journey there.

This is the fourth of five novels in The Chronicles of Prydain, a children’s series based loosely on Welsh mythology.  (Mr. Alexander mentions in the foreword that he’s borrowed bits from other folklore as well.)  The focus is on Taran’s character development, so there’s no one overwhelming threat, but a number of smaller problems and lessons that Taran must overcome or learn from on his way to maturity.

Indeed, Taran has grown a great deal from the callow lad he was at the beginning of the series; he shows wisdom whenever he thinks about how to help others, rather than his own problems.  But he still needs to let go of the notion that he needs to be special before he can embrace his true destiny.

Not everything is hard lessons; not-quite-human Gurgi and the prevaricating bard Fflewddur Fflam provide comic relief.  But there are villains as well, the terrifying Morda, who cannot be killed by mortal means (and who is responsible for some of the mysteries in earlier books) and the greedy mercenary Dorath.  Eilowny does not appear, but is often mentioned.

The book is well-written, though some of the running character tics grow tiresome by the end.  (And the lesson at the end is obvious at the beginning if you’re at all familiar with children’s literature.)   It’s a good breather before the climactic events of the final volume, where Taran and Eilowny must take their mature roles.

I recommend the entire series, and the Disney version has its good bits as well.

Magazine Review: Thrilling Mystery March 1936

Magazine Review: Thrilling Mystery March 1936 by various

Thrilling Mystery was a pulp horror magazine created by Thrilling Publications; I’ve been unable to find publication history details in a quick search.  It specialized in “weird menace” tales, which had supernatural trappings but were ultimately revealed as having non-supernatural (but not necessarily plausible) explanations.  It did not, however, stick entirely to such stories.  This issue was reprinted by Adventure House, so let’s see what’s inside.

Thrilling Mystery March 1936

“The Twisted Men” by Hugh B. Cave starts us off with the tale of a young couple who’ve come to the wife’s isolated New England hometown to purchase a summer home.  Peter and Jo Smith (names changed to protect the innocent) soon discover that some force is taking healthy, sane men, and turning them into twisted, mentally deficient monsters that soon die as their bodies are no longer able to support life.

The explanation is allegedly scientific, but the near-instantaneous transformation of the victims (always done while they are off-page for a few minutes) is highly implausible to say the least.  Some great atmosphere, though.  (Also a completely unnecessary mention of Jo being naked at one point for the “spicy” factor.)

“Cold Arms of the Demon” by Jackson Cole is the non-“weird menace” story in this issue.  There’s something in the lake that likes to drown young women, and staying out of the lake is not a defense.  Good thing there’s a ghost writer in the area!

“Black Moonlight” by G.T. Fleming-Roberts is set in an isolated mountain community, probably in Appalachia.  Despite the best efforts of pretty schoolmarm Helen Dahl, the benighted locals have fallen into the clutches of a doomsday cult that promises the end of the world tonight when the moon is destroyed.   And given that frozen corpses are showing up in the middle of summer in a town with no electricity, the cult just might be on to something.

Good thing Helen’s fiance Larry Brit and town doctor Kayne are not so superstitious!  The story hinges on the notion that the ignorant rural folk don’t understand the concept of an eclipse and wouldn’t have noticed it coming in the Farmer’s Almanac.

“The Howling Head” by Beatrice Morton concerns anthropologist Gregg Hartnett coming across a woman’s head howling in the middle of nowhere.  This proves to be a trap by cannibals.  Period racism and the concept of Social Darwinist atavism (sudden resurgence of ancestral traits, particularly among non-white people) make this an uncomfortable read.

“Vengeance of the Snake-God” by James Duncan stars reporter Gary North, who is engaged to Marion Cravath, daughter of archaeologist Hugh Cravath.  They’ve come to Mr. Cravath’s isolated mansion to gain his blessing on their relationship.  That plotline is derailed when the pair stumble across a corpse in the driveway.  It seems Mr. Cravath raided the tomb of Cla-Mir, high priest of the Egyptian snake god Musartis, and brought the fabulous jewels within back to the States.

There is supposedly a curse on the jewels, and this is the second person to die horribly in a similar manner.  Mr. Cravath had called in detective Paul Medal to protect him, but that worthy admits he’s baffled.  The phone lines have been cut, the vehicles rendered inoperative, and the house’s occupants are dying one by one.  Musartis strikes!

Period racism and ableism, though this time misguided.  The sinister Egyptian little person is a red herring.

“Spider’s Lair” by C.K.M. Scanlon initially looks like a love triangle story.  Jeff is a bank cashier who is in love with Nancy Shelby.  She’s currently dating Clinton Banning, a slick fellow who was recently raised to vice-president by the bank president, Harmon Tabor.  Jeff has been suspicious of Banning for a while, as his work hardly seems of the quality to deserve such a promotion.  The detective agency Jeff hired to look into Banning’s background has discovered a wife that Banning never divorced (and has never mentioned to Nancy.)

Nancy’s weak-willed little  brother Paul Shelby asks Jeff to come along on a triple date to Spider Island that Banning is organizing.  Paul will be bringing along his current squeeze, Dolly Pollard, and there’s a third woman coming along for Jeff, a beautiful but mysterious lady named Rose Larue.  Jeff decides this outing will be the perfect chance to get Banning alone and confront him with Jeff’s knowledge of the abandoned wife.

Spider Island has a sinister reputation, but that might just be because of all the spiders.  Or that it was the lair of pirate Spider Murgler.  Or it might be because of the actual point of the expedition, which is far more lethal than Jeff ever expected.  A nifty if highly implausible murder method is involved.  And maybe a bit more love triangle.  Content warning: torture.

“Blood of Gold” by Wayne Rogers (no relation) has seven young people from the wealthier classes and their chauffeur going on a treasure hunt out in Colorado, based on a map found in one’s father’s trunk.  Most of them will not be making it out alive.  Has some good twists, but again the science explanation for what’s going on is highly implausible.  This is the closest story to the cover illustration, but not quite right.

“The Man Who Died Twice” by Bret Altsheler concerns an attempt to bring a man back from the dead who should have remained a corpse.  Once again, dubious science.  The intro tells us the author also wrote “The Gods Laugh at the Red Maggots” which is a far more intriguing title.

The magazine ends with the “Horror-Scope” column by “Chakra.”   The main feature is retellings of various real-life serial killer cases.  Then there are questions from readers, one on ghosts and the other two on torture.  One of these may be useful to writers looking for authenticity in 1930s gangster stories.

The Adventure House reprint includes the original ads and illustrations.  A good selection of the “weird menace” subgenre, but be warned that in every tale, the role of the main woman is to be rescued by the hero.

 

 

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

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